The secretive world of spooks and national security has once again been thrown into the media spotlight. Firstly the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, addressed the media for the first time. Followed shortly by revelations about a plot to blow-up freight airliners using bombs hidden in printer cartridges was exposed.
Sir John Sawyers spoke of how the work done by his organisation must remain secretive. This is despite the recent trend of public and legal accountability. The work done by the SIS would be harmed by its exposure and as a knock-on effect so would our country’s security.
Then less than 48hrs later yet another plot to challenge our international security was revealed. Two explosive devices were discovered on international freight airliners bound for the U.S from the middle east. Their intended targets were synagogues in the American city of Chicago, well at least that was where the parcels were addressed to. Although it has since been claimed that the devices were to be detonated mid-air. The media and the Home Secretary Theresa May were very quick to point out that these plots were yet another failed attempt at global terrorism. But were they failures?
Whilst there is no universally recognised definition of terrorism it’s fair to say that an act of terror is:
“an act that is planned to cause panic, disrupt and create terror within a community”
Whilst this recent plot didn’t kill or maim anyone, surely it has by its very exposure caused panic and disruption. The UK has suspended all direct flights from the Yemen. Across the pond in the U.S the situation has got so bad that Barack Obama himself has uttered the words “East Midlands Airport”. Not a place that I imagine is usually on Airforce One’s destination list.
Another line of thinking is that perhaps these small devices were meant to be found? Perhaps the tip-off to the security services was made by an Al Qaeda agent? Perhaps these devices are simply a distraction to put us off the scent of a much larger plot?
Whilst we may find it mildly amusing to hear that men with bad beards have failed to blow themselves up using explosive shoes or underwear. We do at times not realise the impact of these failed plots. By their very nature they cause panic and terror, terrorism does not have to involve bloodshed. It is far far easier to terrorise than it is to prevent it. Just think of the impact and panic that a man wearing a vest filled with plasticine would cause in central London or even if someone left a briefcase on the tube during rush hour.
The Governments of the West are now stuck in a rather awkward position. As we must review our security measures but without making drastic decisions that will impede our everyday lives. Essentially we must not let the terrorists win, we must not let the threat of terror dominate the way we live.
It is for this reason that the secretive world of the security services must remain secretive. In this society of ever-increasing access to information there are somethings that we don’t need to know. In fact by not knowing them it enables us to live safer, happier and blissfully boring lives.
That doesn’t mean that when I was walking past MI6 Headquartes on Friday night that I wasn’t thinking, I wish I knew what was going on in there. But if I’d known at the time that the building was buzzing about an explosive printer toner found at East Midlands airport, it might have shattered my illusions of Aston martins and sultry Russians.
To conclude with the words of Sir John Sawyers that I suspect were inspired by Blackadder.
“Secrecy is not a dirty word. secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy is a crucial part of keeping Britain safe and secure” Sir John Sawyers, Chief of MI6 October 2010